What do you get when you combine every modern teen-based horror film (“Unfriended,” “It Follows,” “Final Destination”) with “Jumanji”? If you said “a very dumb, very bad, very watchable piece of garbage,” you’d be right on the money.
Blumhouse Productions is known for creating surprisingly strong low-budget horror films, and the fun trash of “Truth or Dare” seems to be directly in their wheelhouse. It’s unfortunately a major swing-and-miss, failing to reach the heights of predecessors “Unfriended” and “Split.”
The film, from “Kick-Ass 2” director Jeff Wadlow, follows Olivia (Lucy Hale), the only decent person in a group of self-absorbed college douchebags. Every character other than Olivia is extremely hard to like, but none more than her best friend Markie (Violett Beane).
In the audience’s first scene with these two characters, Markie tries to convince Olivia to bail on her planned Habitat for Humanity trip in order to come with their friends on a spring break trip to Mexico. When Olivia refuses, Markie reveals she went behind her back, impersonated her and rescinded her offer to Habitat for Humanity. At this information, Olivia chides Markie for her dishonesty, and then gleefully goes on the trip to Mexico. This is the introduction to characters that the film wants the audience to root for, and it’s absolutely maddening.
While in Mexico, the group gets caught up in an evil game of Truth or Dare that follows them home, which is where the real fun begins. The specific rules of the game are just arbitrary enough to make no sense, but specific enough to make for an interesting story: You have to submit to the game’s demand and only two players can play Truth in a row. If you refuse to pick, you die. If you refuse to tell the truth or perform the dare, you die. If you’re the third person in a row to pick truth — well, I think you get the pattern.
Though the characters are terrible, the dialogue is clunky, the actors can’t convincingly deliver a line and none of it makes sense, the setup of the game makes for an unexpectedly engaging experience. Watching this unpleasant group of teens get brutally tortured at the hand of an ancient evil sometimes actually delivers goofy fun. Though it’s unclear if Wadlow wants the viewer to find joy in the absurdity of the moments, it’s hard not to find enjoyment when a loud, misogynistic dudebro slips on a pool ball and snaps his neck.
A tonal imbalance prevents “Truth or Dare” from staying interesting throughout its 100 minute runtime, frequently trying to execute human drama in between scenes where people announce sexual secrets to a library full of people and stab themselves in the eye with a pen. One particularly egregious scene features a gay character coming out to his father, and it slowly devolves into a very human tragedy. Not only is the scene executed poorly, but also feels wildly out of place, trivializing life, death, sexuality and so many important factions of the human experience. It’s a gross attempt to evoke an emotional response from the viewer, and should have been cut from the film.
Even when “Truth or Dare” understands the movie is most fun when torturing its main characters, it still always feels like it’s holding back. Probably due to the desire for a PG-13 rating, it doesn’t show any of the fun deaths in detail, cutting away just before the proverbial money shot. Last week, John Krasinski’s “A Quiet Place” proved horror films don’t need an R rating to find success, and though that movie was largely bloodless, at least it wasn’t toothless.